Delaware Conservation Summary

Despite its diminutive size, Delaware contains over 150 vegetation communities and a myriad of rare organisms and habitats. Located within two physiographic provinces, the northern 10 percent of the state occurs in the Piedmont region, while the remainder is part of the Coastal Plain of the Delmarva Peninsula. In 1971, Delaware passed the Coastal Zone Act protecting the coastal areas of the state, including the vast coastal marshes and sandy beaches and dunes, from heavy industrial development and bulk transfer facilities.

Rare Species and Characteristic Habitats

Today, protected marshes and beaches along the Atlantic Ocean and Delaware Bay provide foraging, nesting and stopover habitat for migratory and resident birds such as piping plovers, red knots, black rails, snow geese and bald eagles. Coastal beaches and dunes provide habitat for the globally rare Bethany firefly and federally protected seabeach amaranth. Delaware Bay provides spawning habitat for the horseshoe crab. Migratory shorebirds like the red knot come to Delaware each spring to feed on the abundant and nutritious horseshoe crab eggs. Delaware is the last stop in their long flight to Arctic nesting grounds and is a site absolutely critical to the migratory success and survival of many Arctic-nesting shorebirds.

Further inland, a wealth of wetlands occur, including Coastal Plain ponds, seepage wetlands, freshwater tidal marshes and headwater wetlands. Located in some of these wetlands are rare and unique habitats, including Atlantic white cedar swamps, sea-level fens and ash-swamp blackgum freshwater tidal swamps. Many imperiled plants and animals are dependent on a variety Delaware’s wetlands, including the globally rare Seth forest water scavenger beetle and Chermock’s mulberry wing, and plants such as the federally protected swamp-pink and globally rare Hirst’s panic grass and seaside alder. The northernmost extent of bald cypress in the United States is found in Delaware’s wetlands. Piedmont seepage wetlands in the northern portion of the state provide habitat for federally threatened bog turtles. Between the wetlands, inland dune ridge forests, Mid-Atlantic mesic mixed hardwood forests, rich woods and Southern red oak/heath forests provide habitat for Delmarva fox squirrel and small whorled pogonia and neotropical songbirds.

Threats

Delaware’s coastal areas are imperiled by impending sea-level rise. Development above the marshes blocks marsh regeneration and restricts the formation of overwash dunes important to beach-nesting birds. Wetlands are under threat from sedimentation, changes in hydrology and nitrification resulting from increases in impervious surface, lack of adequate buffers, and other impacts from development and other land uses. Large areas of upland forest are imperiled by the rampant progression of development and land-use conversion. Even agricultural landscapes that once provided habitat for Northern bobwhite quail and other shrubland and grassland animals and plants are under threat from development.

Public and Private Conservation Efforts

Delaware is fortunate to have many dedicated conservation groups working to preserve the natural heritage of the state. Many of the former duPont family estates are now natural areas including Brandywine Creek State Park and Winterthur. Private groups protect areas such as Great Cypress Swamp (Delaware Wildlands) and the Red Clay Reservation (Delaware Nature Society). The state government protects areas such as Cape Henlopen State Park and Nanticoke Wildlife Area, while the Federal government guards significant areas of Delaware Bay shoreline at Prime Hook and Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuges.

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